Libya Attack Mystery: Premeditated by Al Qaeda or Spontaneous?

Efforts to work out what happened in Benghazi are being stymied by Libyan officials.

Ben Curtis, File / AP Photo

Shifting explanations from Libyan officials and contradictory recollections by survivors and witnesses are hampering U.S. officials’ efforts to reconstruct the night of the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

Was the attack a premeditated act targeting the ambassador and carefully timed to coincide with the 11th anniversary of 9/11? Or was it a hastily planned opportunistic assault by local Salafists using a protest of the anti-Islamic movie Innocence of Muslims as cover? The former would suggest a possible al Qaeda link—or indicate that Libyan Salafists are becoming more ambitious and proficient in their tactical planning and could pose an even greater threat in the coming weeks.

Libya’s deputy interior minister, Wanis al-Sharef, has not helped clarify the situation for U.S. officials, who had “no intelligence that in any way could have been acted on” and were “not aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi was planned or imminent,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday. Sharef has infuriated his ministerial colleagues by making statements they believe he doesn’t have evidence for. “We need painstaking inquiry, not this speaking out in front of the cameras with statements that then get broadcast and distorted and add to the confusion,” said an adviser to Abdurrahim el-Keib, Libya’s outgoing prime minister, who himself has pointed the finger at “remnants of the Gaddafi regime.”

Sharef, who was in charge of the Interior Ministry’s security forces in Benghazi during the attack, has been critical of the security level at the consulate and of the Americans for keeping U.S. personnel in Benghazi. A series of attacks in the city over the last few months have targeted Westerners, in particular the British ambassador. In addition, Sharef has been the Libyan official most eager to suggest that the assault on the consulate involved considerable forward planning and was timed to coincide with 9/11, providing him with a partial defense for why government security forces were incapable of repelling the attack and protecting the 52-year-old California-born ambassador.

Others also have a vested interest in spinning. Several Libyan political factions have their own local political reasons to slant what happened on the night Stevens was killed. The Benghazi attack has underlined the lack of security in Libya a year after Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster and highlighted the weakness of a central government that’s failed to curb militias, prevent the destabilizing proliferation of weapons, and slow the emergence of armed militant groups. Adding to the lawlessness, a surge of recent Salafist violence has left Sufi mosques and shrines demolished and bombed with what government officials admit was the collusion of security forces ostensibly under their command.

“Blaming al Qaeda or unseen foreign hands and forward planning by foes allows the country’s leaders to avoid facing up the fact that what we are seeing is a failure of government,” said Omar Bakhet, a former U.N. diplomat.

There’s also deep guilt involved. Libyan leaders knew and liked Stevens. He had been a strong supporter of the rebellion to oust Gaddafi and tireless in his job as the Obama administration’s point man with the rebel leadership. At a meeting of Libyan politicians and community leaders with the newly elected Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur on Thursday night in Tripoli, there was deep despair over Stevens’s death. “This man was in the front line with us,” said Khalid Terjman, a rebel leader whom Gaddafi imprisoned as a student by in the mid-1970s for leading university demonstrations. “He was one of the rebels, he was one of us.”

Feeling like he was “one of the rebels” may have lulled Stevens into a false sense of safety. A British security expert who advises foreign companies working in Benghazi says he was surprised that Stevens spent two days in the city. “The British ambassador was nearly killed a few weeks ago and the U.N. envoy Ian Martin had a grenade hurled at his car,” the security expert said. “Most high-profile diplomats spend as little time as possible in Benghazi.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they knew Chris was there and I wouldn’t discount some kind of al Qaeda involvement,” said Mazin Ramadan, a former Libyan government adviser and a friend of the slain ambassador. “We know there were some al Qaeda people before in Derna. And clearly there has been thinking and planning for attacks. We have had a series of them in Benghazi.”

U.S. officials have other questions. Why did the consulate have no U.S. Marine security present, unlike the Tripoli embassy? And why was the consulate, housed in a villa in an upscale district of the eastern Libyan city, not in compliance with State Department security rules for foreign missions? When the dust clears, State Department officials are likely to face the same questions from congressional panels citing, no doubt, a 2009 General Accounting Office report warning of a lack of strategic planning on diplomatic security.

The United States has now deployed two warships off the Libyan coast. And is using surveillance drones in its hunt for some militants thought to be involved in the attack. Militants used anti-aircraft guns to fire at the drones, according to Sharef. “Two American drones flew over Benghazi last night with knowledge of the Libyan authorities,” he told Reuters. “They were visible to the eye and came under attack by anti-aircraft weapons used by armed militias.”

Meanwhile, no one has claimed responsibility for the Benghazi attack. Libyan officials and witnesses say members of the Salafist militia, Ansar al-Sharia, which fought in the rebellion, were involved. Militia leaders also have offered contradictory statements but have praised the assault for “protecting the faith and fighting for the victory of God Almighty.” But they say what happened in Benghazi was a “popular uprising.”

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Earlier Friday, the airspace over Benghazi was closed when militants warned that they would fire on any American planes they spot. Ali al-Shaikhi, spokesman for the Army Chief of Staff, confirmed that the decision to halt civilian aircraft flying into Benghazi was taken as a precaution while U.S. surveillance drones were flying.